As the thunder crashed and lightning blazed on the dramatic opening credits of new film Beautiful Creatures I found myself wondering who exactly were the devastating souls described in the title. At first I assumed it must be the Casters, the seemingly immortal beings who could manipulate elements, energy, and the human mind with their spells.
Like its supernatural protagonists, Beautiful Creatures the film—based off the quartet of novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl—is similarly ethereal and forbidding. On the first day of junior year, Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) meets Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the girl he’s been dreaming of for weeks. Their prophetic encounter makes more sense when Ethan learns Lena is a Caster, and that on her sixteenth birthday her powers will be claimed for either the Light or the Dark.
But even with this dramatic countdown in place, the movie never takes itself too seriously. It’s a spirited, compelling, funny story of young love.
What I find most charming about Beautiful Creatures is how it reverses the typical human girl/supernatural guy dynamic we see in Twilight, Warm Bodies, and other recent adaptations of Young Adult books. This isn’t love at first sight: Lena is prickly and defensive, so used to being chased out of town that she snaps back at the first mortal to take her on her own terms. And whereas the audience has suffered through seven years of Bella Swan stumbling over her own Converse sneakers, here it’s Ethan who’s prone to fainting and insomnia.
And yet, no matter how painfully his puny mortality is compared to the Casters’ invincibility, Ethan still radiates. We have to credit Ehrenreich for this dynamic performance. He sputters and gulps and snarks and retorts and dances around every sourpuss excuse from Lena and every truly dangerous encounter with her family. His personality is undeniable and is what makes you buy this fledgling, forbidden romance.
That said, it can’t be just the young lovers who carry the star-crossed conflict on their own. The two families must be convincingly intimidating. On Ethan’s side, there’s really just his guardian figure Amma (Viola Davis, whose presence elevates the rest of the cast). Lena’s Caster family is peppered with fun performances from recognizable actors like Kyle Gallner and Margo Martindale, and of course the double-header of Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson squaring off as Dark siblings Macon and Sarafine.
Sometimes you see celebrated actors slumming it in subpar movies, but that’s not the case here. Davis brings the necessary emotional weight, providing exposition that doesn’t feel forced. Thompson seems to be having a delightful time as the main villainess, with her low-cut Civil War-era dresses and dark magic.
But it’s Irons who truly commits to his role as Lena’s forbidding uncle Macon Ravenwood. Though he’s described as a shut-in akin to Boo Radley, he has the best wardrobe of any character, dressed like a bachelor lounging around his mansion. The truth is that Macon simply has no desire to meddle in mortal affairs, for reasons that get teased out thread by thread. The trailers reduce him to barking, “You cannot love that boy!” but in the scenes between Irons and Englert, it’s clear how much Macon actually cares for his niece.
Like I said, Beautiful Creatures balances out its darkness with surprisingly funny moments. One of the best bits is Ethan warbling along to a typical incoherent country song before he meets Lena for the first time. And on both sides, there’s strong comic relief. Emmy Rossum plays Lena’s cousin Ridley partly as her inevitable future self, but also partly as a young woman having fun screwing with everyone else. (Fascinating is the way they spit out the endearment “cuz” at each other at every interaction.) Wrapped up in Ridley’s plan is Ethan’s best friend Link; Thomas Mann is only on-screen in a few scenes, but he’s got the kind of self-deprecating swagger that reinforces why I could envision him as a young Han Solo.
One sticking point is that the movie doesn’t address the issue of sex as much as the book did. There are several jokes that daringly dance around the issue, but in the series Lena is actually unable to have sex with Ethan—or can only if she chooses a certain path. Englert and Ehrenreich have fantastic chemistry, but they’re too busy figuring out a centuries-old curse to actually develop this other aspect of their relationship.
That’s not to say this movie isn’t romantic as all get out. Richard LaGravenese, who wrote and directed the film, makes Beautiful Creatures a sweeping romance for Millennials. He establishes the atmosphere of the heady, historical South just like he grounded his segment in Paris, je t’aime; he imbues it with the same yearning and sense of magic as P.S. I Love You. I hope he takes on the sequels.
Ultimately, it’s Macon who clears up the title confusion. In the book he says, “[Mortals] are such beautiful creatures.” In the movie, he expounds upon that, commenting that even when mortals are beaten down by powers outside of their control, they still have faith. Similarly, Beautiful Creatures gets by on its faith that all of these elements—director, actors, story—meld together the way that, once in a while, Light and Dark also do.
Photos: John Bramley/Alcon Entertainment, LLC
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. Her writing has appeared on Ology and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her commenting on pop culture on KoPoint’s podcast AFK On Air, calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.